It just sort happens. You wake up one morning, go through your mundane daily routine and it occurs to you. It doesn’t come as a revelation. There is no bright beam of light and the harp-song of angels. There’s just you, a half eaten slice of peanut butter toast and a strange new awareness. A consciousness.
In the corner of the kitchen lean a few rod tubes and cases. You’ve rediscovered the sweet feel of the two-piece rod, but they are a little cumbersome to store. You’ve fished some still waters over the course of the last two weekends and haven’t had the energy to exacavate a hole deep enough in your gear cupboard to bury them again. That’s fine. You like them leaning as they are in the far corner next to two of your guitar cases and more unfinished landing nets than would be considered “prompt customer service”. It’s a big kitchen, the corner is more an alcove than anything else and they’re in nobody’s way so you may as well leave them there. The nets will get finished when they get finished and the guitars will get played sometime – neither make you anxious anymore.
You’ve been fishing stillwaters. It’s not really your thing. You fish them, and you mostly enjoy it, but it’s the clumsy stepsister of trout fishing. There’s an undeniable satisfaction to be had from catching fish that occasionally give you a glimpse at your backing but somehow that’s never really been what has captured your interest. Sure, in the early days when all you wanted to do was catch a fish it was perfect, but you’ve been doing this for more than half of your life now and simply catching a fish is no longer as much of a problem for you as it once was.
Everything about a stillwater is the antithesis to a stream. In this country it’s an almost totally artificial environment (although in the better ones it’s fairly hard to tell the difference). The fish are the same species as in the streams that you fish but beyond that it’s feels for the most part like a continual pissing contest rather than a meditative place. Obviously that’s not entirely true, but it does feel that way. Longer casts. Bigger flies. Bigger fish. Weights and lengths and numbers. Somehow when you describe a fish from a stream as being 12″ it’s just a device to assist the listener rather than being a relative measure of accomplishment. Sure, when you say 16″ or, rarely, 20″ you’re making a statement – but it’s not the same one as when you say 60cm or 4kg from a dam. In a river the fish is validated for attaining a large size rather than the angler is for catching it. It’s a narrow cultural distinction – but it’s absolutely true.
While catching a fish in a stream may no longer pose too much of a problem to you that’s not to say that you never blank. You took a friend out onto a stream to help him out a little and reassured him just before you left that he’ll be fine – you very, very infrequently are skunked. He’d been working rivers fairly hard for zero return and you wanted to get his confidence up ahead of stringing his rod. And you weren’t skunked this time either. He battled though and missed and dropped fish with alarming regularity. There’s no substitute for time on a stream to increase your confidence and with it your returns. If only new entrants to the sport would pay attention to a few simple things they would be met with almost immediate success. You can tell them and coach them and while some get it quickly only time (and that inexplicable and tenuous alchemy between observation and your reaction to what you observe) is what finally does it.
You’ve made an effort over the last few seasons to join inexperienced fishers for a day on a river and the way you see it there are two basic mistakes made by all of them. The problem with trying to resolve these mistakes is that they appear to be such a fundamental part of the art that your guidance seems to them to be paradoxical. The first lesson is to stop casting. After weeks spent on the lawn in practice trying to explain to a guy that he should place his fly with as little casting as possible is practically impossible. The poor confused buggers hit the water and barely give the fish a chance, so little time does the imitation spend on the water. The second problem would be solved by telling your friend to leave his fly box at home and then on his arrival giving him one dry and one nymph pattern only. Between casting and changing flies the most suicidal of fish stands no chance of success. In an infinitesimally small fraction of the time your fly box holds the panacea to provide you with a full creel. As a sweeping generalization remember that no fly works all of the time, no fly works none of the time and that most flies work most of the time (but only if you give them the opportunity to do so).
It’s now mid-winter. The worst of the cold is still to arrive but you’ve lit the fire for the second time already. The rivers open in two months and five days. From where you’re sitting it may as well be five years, so slowly does the time drag past.
Winters are for tying flies and doing chores (when you don’t occasionally capitulate and cast a heavier rod over an impoundment; something that you have precious little respect for and just can’t take seriously). You bought a custom version of the Rolls Royce of fly tying vices on a whim at a charity auction recently in the steadfast belief that it would galvanize you into using the impressive collection of other tools and materials that you own and that you would start off the next season with boxes plump with your own rough, but serviceable, flies. Retail therapy, they call it.
You’ve yet to open the bag to even look at the vice but, again, it’s a really comfortable thing to have around. (And, by God, it’s beautiful – like the geek who snags a underwear model it’s far, far too good for you.)
What you’ve been occupying yourself with is looking ahead to the new season. As you do every winter.
Last season was one of two halves. Late snowfall brought to your favorite rivers a bit of respite from the crippling drought and come September they were a little more than just fishable. Opening weekend saw you and a rag-tag bunch flogging away at barely moving streams. You fished the little bamboo rod that you made the previous winter and were surprised how good it was. At 6’3″ it is a little short but you made it specifically for a particular stream and are ecstatic with its abilities and marginally less so with its looks.
Opening weekend was something of a bust. You paired up with someone who was to become a good and treasured friend and fished through the village. You saw one rise, executed a perfect cast to it and (its early season, you consoled yourself) – duffed it. Sitting on the bank you built your pipe and smoked in the gentle spring sunlight until it started rising again. Without hurry you loaded the wooden rod and dropped the caddis within millimeters of where you wanted it. A snatching rise, a well-timed set and you were into your first brown of the season.
The rod that you made (one makes a bamboo rod and builds a graphite rod I’m told) fought the fish beautifully, bending right back into the corks and nursing the 7X tippet. You rarely take photographs of the fish you catch but twisting out the hook and throwing the line aside and downstream you lowered the rod into the stream for a quick picture next to the fish. Fumbling for the waterproof camera in your breast pocket the fish escaped your light grasp and shot, at great speed, in the general direction of as far away from you as it can get.
It would have taken more than this to spoil your mood and with a chuckle you pick up your rod, slowly becoming aware of some tension in it. Your fish in its flight downstream passed the fly and took it again. You get your picture as the rod, as good rods should, notches up its first story to be told over tackle shop counters and around fire pits. Other than for one from the small dam on the way back it’s the first (and the second?) and the last fish of what was a long day on the water. The conditions this season are going to be hard, you reason, but it’s going to be a cracker. Provided that it rains soon.
The next day everyone leaves while the Doc joins you on a hike to fish higher up. Both fishing the grass rods that you made you leapfrog pools and smile and encourage one another as your spirits steadily start to wane. Collectively you spook one fish. You neither raise not prick a single one. You tell each other that the stretch is known for being difficult and in water this clear and slow you didn’t stand a chance to begin with. It’ll pick up, you reassure one another uncertainly, opening weekend is always awful.
Two months later you’re getting seriously concerned.
End of part one